A Tale of Two Bell Curves

Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard:

To paraphrase Mark Twain, an infamous book is one that people castigate but do not read. Perhaps no modern work better fits this description than The Bell Curve by political scientist Charles Murray and the late psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein. Published in 1994, the book is a sprawling (872 pages) but surprisingly entertaining analysis of the increasing importance of cognitive ability in the United States. It also included two chapters that addressed well-known racial differences in IQ scores (chapters 13-14). After a few cautious and thoughtful reviews, the book was excoriated by academics and popular science writers alike. A kind of grotesque mythology grew around it. It was depicted as a tome of racial antipathy; a thinly veiled expression of its authors’ bigotry; an epic scientific fraud, full of slipshod scholarship and outright lies. As hostile reviews piled up, the real Bell Curve, a sober and judiciously argued book, was eclipsed by a fictitious alternative. This fictitious Bell Curve still inspires enmity; and its surviving co-author is still caricatured as a racist, a classist, an elitist, and a white nationalist.

Myths have consequences. At Middlebury college, a crowd of disgruntled students, inspired by the fictitious Bell Curve — it is doubtful that many had bothered to read the actual book — interrupted Charles Murray’s March 2nd speech with chants of “hey, hey, ho, ho, Charles Murray has got to go,” and “racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!” After Murray and moderator Allison Stanger were moved to a “secret location” to finish their conversation, protesters began to grab at Murray, who was shielded by Stanger. Stanger suffered a concussion and neck injuries that required hospital treatment.

It is easy to dismiss this outburst as an ill-informed spasm of overzealous college students, but their ignorance of The Bell Curve and its author is widely shared among social scientists, journalists, and the intelligentsia more broadly. Even media outlets that later lamented the Middlebury debacle had published – and continue to publish – opinion pieces that promoted the fictitious Bell Curve, a pseudoscientific manifesto of bigotry. In a fairly typical but exceptionally reckless 1994 review, Bob Hebert asserted, “Murray can protest all he wants, his book is just a genteel way of calling somebody a n*gger.” And Peter Beinart, in a defense of free speech published after the Middlebury incident, wrote, “critics called Murray’s argument intellectually shoddy, racist, and dangerous, and I agree.”

The Bell Curve and its authors have been unfairly maligned for over twenty years. And many journalists and academics have penned intellectually embarrassing and indefensible reviews and opinions of them without actually opening the first few pages of the book they claim to loathe. The truth, surprising as it may seem today, is this: The Bell Curve is not pseudoscience. Most of its contentions are, in fact, perfectly mainstream and accepted by most relevant experts. And those that are not are quite reasonable, even if they ultimately prove incorrect. In what follows, we will defend three of the most prominent and controversial claims made in The Bell Curve and note that the most controversial of all its assertions, namely that there are genetically caused race differences in intelligence, is a perfectly plausible hypothesis that is held by many experts in the field. Even if wrong, Herrnstein and Murray were responsible and cautious in their discussion of race differences, and certainly did not deserve the obloquy they received.